For years, Marjorie Kelley, a stay-at-home mom in Greenwich, Conn., followed the preferred suburban method for raising children.
She kept the four of them booked solid.
"My kids were involved with many, many activities," she says. "Ice skating, hockey, soccer, ballet, tap dancing, chess lessons, Spanish lessons, Chinese lessons, piano lessons, violin lessons, swimming lessons, lacrosse."
Like many middle-class and upper-middle-class parents, Kelley, 45, said she ran herself ragged, making sure her kids got to every activity.
"You won't deny your child anything," she says. "You want your child to have everything you never had."
But like some psychologists and child development experts, Kelley eventually wound up wondering: Was she really helping her kids?
Kelley can't be the only one asking that question. A pair of surveys of hundreds of kids by University of Michigan in 1981 and 1997 found the time children spent in organized activities grew substantially, while their free time declined.
That trend has some psychologists worried. Several bemoan the loss of free time for kids as a loss of imagination and creativity. And they are concerned about the pressure over-structured childhoods place on the shoulders of young people and their parents, who have to plan it all.
"It's made parenting the most competitive adult sport," says Alvin Rosenfeld, a psychiatrist and author of the book, The Overscheduled Child. "We're trying to professionalize childhood."
But without firm proof that a heavy load of structured activities is harmful, parents, sociologists and psychologists continue to debate the advantages and disadvantages of a supercharged childhood, and how much is too much.
Most stress that having some organized activities can be helpful for kids, and some children could even benefit from additional structure in their lives. The key is moderation, many say.
"This becomes 'over-programming' if the child never has a chance to manage his or her time or if the child does not really enjoy what he or she is doing," says Judy Myers-Walls, an associate professor in child development and family studies at Purdue University.
On the one hand, says Demie Kurz, who is working on a book about teen interaction in families, when opportunity knocks, joining the right extracurriculars can make the difference between acceptance to an Ivy League and a safety school.
"If your computer club at school is going to go to Nepal and help set up some computers in classes or something, you have to be in that club," says Kurz, co-director of the University of Pennsylvania's women's studies program.
"Imagination and creativity, for some people, you get by sitting under a tree on a beautiful day and letting your mind go," Kurz said. "For others of us, it's a matter of exposure. It's hard to know what's possible unless you're exposed to it."
On the other hand, some psychologists say many kids nowadays could benefit emotionally and intellectually from more time daydreaming under that tree.
"There's no world that's a kid's world," said Rosenfeld, who sees kids and adults in his New York City and Greenwich, Conn., offices. "There's nothing left the parents can't intrude on."